Toronto: Reese Witherspoon Talks Female Empowerment, Saying No to Sexual Shame

Reese Witherspoon Good Lie Premiere TIFF H 2014
Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Warner Bros./AP Images

Reese Witherspoon Good Lie Premiere TIFF H 2014

In a wide-ranging discussion, the actress explained the important message of her new film

Wild wasn't just the most physically challenging role of Reese Witherspoon's career. It also offered the actress an opportunity to have a frank discussion about sexuality with her 15-year-old daughter.

"There's a lot of explicit sex scenes in this movie," Witherspoon said during a Mavericks conversation Sunday night at the Toronto Film Festival. "And she's like, 'Oh no!' "

In a wide-ranging discussion, which took place at Glenn Gould Studio, the actress talked about tackling Jean-Marc Vallee's film — based on a best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed — as well her role in another Toronto film, Philippe Falardeau's The Good Lie.

She said there's a lesson in Wild, which centers on a sexually daring woman who overcomes a string of personal tragedies by hiking more than 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. The lesson: Young girls are conditioned to feel shame about their sexuality, and that's not OK.

"It's such an important message about female sexuality," she said. "We kissed that guy or we had sex with that dude in college. We're totally ashamed of so many things. I think this movie says, 'That's OK. Maybe I was meant to sleep with all those guys. Maybe I wanted to. Maybe if I could go back and do it all again, I'd do the same thing.' It's a total liberation, especially for young women."

Witherspoon talked about her own youth as the daughter of a doctor father and a nurse mother and how she thought she was destined to be a doctor until she saw a casting notice at the age of 14 for Robert Mulligan's The Man in the Moon. She landed the part, which led eventually to her breakout role as Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne's Election, which she dubbed "a huge flop."

"Election cost $10 million and made $11 million," Witherspoon said. "It was actually a huge flop. A critical success but a huge flop."

Her performance as an overly ambitious high schooler was so spot-on, it had the unintended consequence of leaving her unemployable.

"I couldn't get a job after Election. A lot of studio heads thought I was the character," she said. " 'Eww. She's a real shrew.' "

She followed that up with a story of how Christopher Nolan wrote her a letter that said: " 'I really wanted to cast you, but the studio wouldn't cast you.' "

Still, Witherspoon persevered, demonstrating that she could move with ease between comedy vehicles like Legally Blonde and serious roles like her Oscar-winning performance in Walk the Line.

As for future plans, she said she is thinking about directing an unspecified project at the end of the year. She also will soon be seen onscreen opposite Sofia Vergara in the comedy Don't Mess With Texas.

"I just wanted to make a movie with Sofia," she said. "We got together and just started brainstorming. The Latino audience is so underserved. This woman is Lucille Ball. She is so funny."

Though the conversation meandered, it kept coming back to Wild's themes of female empowerment and women owning their own sexuality. In fact, Witherspoon is a big fan of Girls' Lena Dunham for showing women how to do that.

"I think she's changing cultural attitudes with her honestly and willingness to bare all," she said.

Twitter: @TatianaSiegel27